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Aid to Civil Society - A Movement Mindset - USIP

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Assisting civic movements, as outlined, differs from the ways in which most donors support NGOs, from identifying entities for support to accountability mechanisms. Certain general guidelines point the way to identifying and engaging civic campaigns and movements.

Prioritize locally rooted nonviolent civic campaigns and movements. Such actors tend to be known and respected locally and to have demonstrable popular support. They may not be led by professionals and may not organize their work in the form of projects, but they often have positive links with professional institutions.

Identify local change agents from a broad spectrum of civil society that includes youth, artists, workers, women, professionals, journalists, and others specific to the cultural con- text. These networks should be developed and maintained on an ongoing basis by donor officials. When security restrictions preclude wide and regular exposure to such networks, local staff and consultants should be encouraged to help with outreach. Criteria for support- ing local actors should be based on the clarity of their goals and needs, their volunteer base, locally raised financial contributions, and demonstrated ability to mobilize diverse groups.

Provide smaller, longer-term, and more flexible forms of financing. Onerous reporting requirements should be dropped for micro-grants below a certain threshold or for entities with already high local support and legitimacy. Simplifying and streamlining the processes for securing and maintaining funding is necessary. Relationship-based management— emphasizing text messages, e-mails, phone calls, and in-person conversations—combined with site visits can be more revealing than formal reports, especially for partners who do not speak English as a first language.

Language used in RFPs should be flexible enough to adapt to the best ideas that emerge locally and may already have demonstrable local support. Smaller, targeted grants that can be “surged” at key moments are helpful to civic mobilizers. Catalytic funding that is constant over a lengthier period is generally preferable to large sums of money with short-term win- dows for some organizations. For others, just-in-time support may be one-off and may need to be provided in a way that avoids lengthy administrative processes.

This approach is likely to be challenging for large bilateral and multilateral donors whose policies and procedures tend to be less flexible. Administering small grants to nontraditional actors is time consuming and demands deep familiarity with local actors and networks. To address this constraint, donors could provide umbrella grants to trusted NGOs that in turn could manage micro-grants. This approach would encourage productive partnerships between traditional and nontraditional civic actors yet allow each to focus on their com- parative advantage. In Pakistan, USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) manages such partnerships through an umbrella grant to an NGO staffed by well-networked Pakistanis who headhunt and manage relationships with smaller entities. Alternatively, foundations or other nongovernmental actors less bound by donor requirements could take the lead in providing support to civic movements in more flexible ways.

If you must pay activists, don’t overdo it. Assistance must be structured so that it does not create financial distortions, such as through above-market salaries or overgenerous bud- gets. Social psychology research suggests that such extrinsic rewards can reduce intrinsic motivation and completely displace it—such that the activity becomes dependent on the provision of external rewards.42 This does not mean, however, that activists must be wealthy elites—though elites can be crucial interlocutors for disenfranchised groups.

Nonfinancial assistance may be helpful. Such support includes in-kind support of equip- ment and materials, solidarity support (regular communication with activists, dissemination of translated statements, and the like), or legal assistance. Training, when appropriately designed, has been quite useful. The Solidarity Center, part of the NED umbrella that supports labor unions around the world, has provided training in collective bargaining skills that, combined with sustained communications with workers during government repression, proved particu- larly useful in Tunisia and Egypt.43 The form and content of the trainings will differ greatly, however, from that commonly provided to NGOs. Capacity building that facilitates peer-to-peer learning and combines learning with doing (clinics) and mentoring tend to be far more useful than institutionally oriented or thematic training. Peer-to-peer trainings involving activists from different anticorruption movements have proved especially helpful.44

Ensure that funding does not stimulate new agendas or reframe local struggles. Suc- cessful movements and campaigns offer a compelling alternative vision to the status quo. Many countries offer a dynamic, indigenous environment for change. As an Asia Foundation report concludes about Pakistan, “Citizens groups are experts on their own political econo- mies and often retain significant agency in the face of considerable challenges which, given the opportunity, they will use to organize collectively to improve their circumstances.”45

Social and political goals organically emerging from local realities are far more likely to be met and sustained than those suggested by external actors. This doesn’t mean that donors can’t align with causes that forward their values. They should, however, align their objectives to the local environment rather than stimulate an environment where local change agents must adapt to donors to receive support.

Maximize local expressions. Human rights and peace goals usually have far more popular support when they draw on local expressions of these ideas and anchor their legitimacy in cultural codes. For example, when seeking support from religious Muslim audiences, turning to Islamic law as much as international law can help ground the work culturally.

Recognize when aid could delegitimize. As noted, governments often accuse civil society actors, particularly those that challenge their policies, of being tools of foreign govern- ments. Donors should not be cowed into submission. They should, however, especially U.S. government agencies, heed the do-no-harm principle and avoid taking actions that might delegitimize homegrown movements, particularly those in the Muslim world. Typically, the more diverse and participatory the movements are, the more resistant they are to being associated with foreign agendas. Movements are legitimate if it is clear that the activists, rather than the donors, are driving the agenda. Involving multiple donors and local co- sponsorships can also help dampen the delegitimizing effects of bilateral foreign support.

How an assistance relationship is structured is also important. Donors may have to do away with branding and other visibility strategies and take advantage of opportunities to be transparent so that the goals and activities of the donor are understood. Many U.S.- supported programs are managed this way. A USAID assessment of support in the Dominican Republic highlighted the importance of maintaining a low profile, thereby allowing the grantees to take the visible lead.46 

So Much Aid, So Little Education

Three Cups of Tea Won't Be Enough for Pakistan - NPR